The 1978 version of the men's soccer squad has a tough act to follow. Last year, the Crimson showed they could match skills with the best of the Ivies and now, with high expectations and nine starters returning, the task will not be any easier.
Once an underdog knocks off a few established powers, it becomes more difficult to catch opponents unprepared and the tendency for a letdown and fan frustration is there.
Ask the New England Patriots who were a roughing-the-passer call away from besting the 1977 Super Bowl champs in the playoffs only to fizzle last season and miss the playoffs.
Or watch the Broncos this season. The Orange Crush came out of nowhere--actually it was Denver--to reach last January's Super Sunday.
A tough season lies ahead for the booters in the Ivy League, probably the most competitive in the nation in soccer. Last season the 6-4-4 squad upset highly ranked UMass and Dartmouth in early season matches and went on to outplay perennial power Brown for one half before losing, 3-2, so expectations of fans and opponents will be high.
The squad has achieved respectability and is capable of beating anyone on its schedule with the strong corps of returnees. That group includes the "four freshmen"--that's not a new 50s nostalgia rock group--who last year gave a well needed shot in the arm to the program, bringing some flashy skills and a willingness to learn which had been absent.
There will not be an easy opponent in the entire league, however. Brown should be the team to beat, followed closely by Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, and even Columbia. Yale stands to give the Crimson the least trouble but that game can never be taken for granted.
"It will be a little tougher, but we've got a better team," Lee Nelson, last year's leading scorer, said at the team's Newport training site overlooking the Atlantic last week.
The team appears determined. According to Coach George Ford and Captain Jim Langton, everyone came back in great shape, enabling the group to work more on strategy and less-on conditioning "This is more a thinking week." Ford said.
The three practice sessions a day have included one-touch and walk-through scrimmages to "get the players to think ahead." Ford has emphasized defensive skills and is working on getting the players to create and to recognize man advantage situations in various areas of the field, one of the weaknesses last season.
"Great attitude," was the key word for both Ford and Langton. Ford said, "There are lots of questions, and they'll just stop at midfield and discuss them."
"It's not false enthusiasm at all." Langton added.
The main problem for the team is replacing graduated Fred Herold in the nets. One can imagine Ford dreaming at night that another Shep Messing will waltz into training camp, a chaw of Skoal or Red Man lodged in his cheek.
But he must settle for Bill Blood and Ed Weinfurter. Neither has much varsity experience--Blood played about a game and a half last year--but Langton seemed confident that Blood and Weinfurter will fill Fredo's shoes, even if it takes the both of them.
The spark which Herold could sometime provide with a big save may have to come from elsewhere, and that could be the forward line. Matt Bowyer is taking a leave this fall, but Dave Eaton, who played varsity his freshmen and sophomore years before taking last year off, has returned. And the rest of the line is intact, led by Nelson(13 goals) and the two sophomores, Walter Diaz(6 goals) and Alberto Villar.
The rest of last year's squad also returns, with Steve Yakopec flanked by super-tough Michael Smith and Andy Kronfeld at midfield, and captain Langton anchoring the back line with Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and second team All-Ivy John Sanacore, who's always a threat to take the ball all the way on a fast break.
With six or seven freshmen recruits coming in this week and a corps of returning subs, Ford has a strong group to work with.
The season operns at MIT on September 20 followed by the first Ivy League test, with Columbia on September 23. The big game of the early going will be against Connecticut, in its stadium which is fondly referred to as a pit. UConn has been one of the top three teams in New England for the last five years and a Crimson win would say much about chances later against Dartmouth and Brown.
When discussion came around to Brown, Ford perked up last week. "We underdog again?" he asked hopefully, obviously relishing that position as the 1978 season gets underway.